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Family Tree Research for beginners

Family Tree

Join me in learning how to do it

I started to trace my family tree, urged on by my wife. All I had to go on was my father's death certificate, as my parents died when I was quite young. Nothing much known about my mother except her name. I'll list all the steps I've taken and the pitfalls.

Here's my log of how I got started

1st October

Borrowed a book from my local library about tracing family trees. Then found that most large city libraries run a course on family trees. Attended, pretty basic stuff but got the addresses of some good websites.

7th October

Used a recommended site freebmd.rootsweb.com and entered my father's name. Came back with ref: Sheffield 9c 640. This is what's called a GRO reference (General Register Office for Births, Deaths and Marriages). I applied in person for the certificate at Sheffield Registry Office £7.00. Told it might take up to 2 weeks. Found you can do it online at www.gro.gov.uk for the same price, saves petrol and easier.

16th October

Received father's birth certificate in the post, giving address where he was born and details of my grandfather and grandmother that I never knew. Now I know why my father's middle name was Higgins, it was my grandmother's maiden name. Next step - search for my grandfather again at freebmd.rootsweb.com (it's free as the name suggests, but records are not complete yet) - nothing found.

17th October

Stumped I thought, how do I find my grandfather's birth certificate as you need the year. It came to me that his age would be on his marriage certificate (if I could find it) then I'd know which year he was born. I knew my father was born in 1906, so I worked backwards from there (assuming that they were married at the time). I used www.1837online.com but you have to pay. 55 credits for £5 but that's not as bad as it seems.
You can't search for a name and it just pops up. The pages are copies of original lists, about 450 names per page covering every birth, marriage and death since 1837. They are indexed in periods of 3 months, Jan-Feb-Mar / Apr-May-Jun / Jul-Aug-Sep / Oct-Nov-Dec.
You select either birth, marriage or death, then select a period to search. When you do a search, it only returns a list of pages where the surname *may* appear (no cost yet). I selected 1905 to 1906 which returned 8 quarterly periods. Clicked on Oct-Dec (one credit deducted). It lists surnames you entered (and others) but may not be the ones you want. I got down to 1905 Jul-Sep page and there it was. The record I wanted, found for (6 credits = about 60 pence) and never left the house.
Now I have a GRO reference of the marriage record, back to www.gro.gov.uk and ordered a certificate.

23rd October

Received a copy of my grandfather's marriage certificate (George William Exton). Gives his age as 36 years when he got married in 1905, so I need to look in the registered births for around 1869. Found a record in 1868 that matches. Applied for that birth certificate (yes, another £7). Other info on certificate: great-grandfather called William Exton (Cow keeper). My grandmother's age was show as 35 years, so I looked that up out of interest and found that she lied about her age. She was actually 37. All women lie about their age *grin* so that's something else to consider in your research.

1st November

Certificate arrived but something doesn't ring true. DOB doesn't match the age on the marriage certificate. Did he lie about his age? Was his middle name registered? The info on early certificates is very limited.

4th November

Been looking at the 1881 Census at www.familysearch.org (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) which is free and very good, though hard to use at first, to try and cross reference my results. Found two George Extons (1867 and 1868) both with middle name of William and fathers named William in the Lincs area. Both match exactly. Applied for a second birth certificate. Very frustrating!

6th November

Joined www.genesreunited.co.uk at a cost of £7.50. You can search for names that others have researched and there's plenty, but it seems weird that you have to put in a request to look at someone else's family tree. Requested 5 Extons trees to view. Got 2 replies but nothing connected. Still waiting for 3 replies, but I've got a feeling their membership has lapsed.

12th November

Had to have a re-think. Used www.familysearch.org and on the 1881 Census, I found a George W. Exton who had a brother, Arthur. Following Arthur's details to cross check. On www.1837online.com found the GRO details and applied for his certificate. This is harder than I thought.

17th December

Certificate finally arrived in the post for Arthur Exton confirming a cross reference connection. Now I can apply for William Exton (great grandfather). It will be sometime before I receive it.

12th January

Received my great grandfather's certificate (which is cross referenced with the other certificates) and now feel I've got somewhere.

Update: www.1837online.com is now called www.findmypast.com (£6.95 for 60 credits)

Getting this last certificate seemed to me a great achievement, and I won't bother listing any more (as it'll get boring) but you get the idea and the time period involved. Researching your family tree is not something you're going to finish in a week.

What I spent on the above research

  • www.1837online.com (55 credits minimum) - £5.00
  • Father's birth certificate - £7.00
  • Grandfather's marriage certificate - £7.00
  • Grandfather's birth certificate (details don't fit, Arrgh!) - £7.00
  • Grandfather's birth certificate (correct one) - £7.00
  • GenesConnected (1 year subscription) - £7.50
  • Arthur Exton's certificate - £7.00
  • Great grandfather's birth certificate - £7.00
Total expenditure to date: £54.50

It has taken nearly 4 months to get this far due to the time taken to receive certificates. You don't have to purchase every certificate, but the certificates are invaluable and really interesting to read. Spread over time, the cost is not too bad and would be a legacy to leave to your children or grandchildren.

Viewing Birth Records Online

Not everything is clear and in a straight line as you would expect. But pages can be enlarged (magnified) and saved to your computer to study later. To view the records, you need to download a free self-installing viewer from their site, which is very easy to do. Not all records are a 100% legible. If they're not readable, there is a link to inform them and you're not charged.

When you view a record, you can't guarantee it's correct. Early records may have been mistyped or incorrectly spelt. The age of a person may not be accurate, as poorer people didn't celebrate birthdays too much and sometimes forgot how old they actually were. Women often stated that they were younger, as they do today.

Good Luck with your Family Tree Research